Monday, November 28, 2011

Davies on Gentiles, Jews, and the Torah

I have two items for my write-up today on W.D. Davies' Jewish and Pauline Studies:

1. In Romans 11:17-18 (in the KJV), we read: "And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee."

A point that Davies makes on at least three occasions in this book is that there is significance in Paul's comparison of the Gentile Christians with a wild olive tree. Paul's purpose for the comparison, according to Davies, is to illustrate that the Gentiles contribute nothing to the olive tree, for wild olive trees never produce useful oil (even though Davies does note that wild olive trees are not thoroughly useless, for they were utilized in Olympic wreaths and in the construction of buildings). For Davies, Paul is saying that the Gentiles came into the Christian community when they were uncultivated, and the "cultivating element in culture is not the Greco-Roman but the Jewish" (page 144). Davies quotes Cyril of Alexandria's affirmation that Christ sent the apostles to cultivate the uncultivated. For Davies' Paul, whatever cultivation the Gentile Christians are receiving is from the Jewish contribution to the people of God.

This view differs from another notion in ancient Christianity (and I do not know where Cyril of Alexandria stood in relationship with it): that God used pagan culture to prepare the Gentiles for Christ, almost as if pagan culture was for the Gentiles what Sinai was for Israel. According to Davies' characterization of Paul's thought, however, Gentile culture did not have anything that was useful or cultivating. Davies may think that Paul saw Gentile culture as full of idolatry and fornication (though Paul found something enlightening in Gentile culture in Acts 17).

2. An issue that I've been visiting and revisiting on this blog is the relationship of Gentiles to the Torah. Davies comments on this. I'm not sure if what he says is dramatically different from thoughts (by other authors) that I have discussed on this blog, but I'll post them for my records.

On page 186, Davies takes H.D. Betz to task: "And his treatment of the role of Gentiles in Judaism provokes uneasiness. Is it true that for Judaism 'outside the Torah covenant there is no salvation'...? H.D.B. ignores the doctrine of the Noachian commandments. The interpretation of 4:5 suffers from this lack[;] we prefer to follow Burton (1921). The Gentiles are under the laws of the covenant of Noah."

Paul says in Galatians 4:4-5: "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons."

For Davies, this passage means that Christ redeemed the Gentiles from the seven Noachide commandments. God gave most of these commands to humanity at creation, and God added a few immediately after the Flood. A prominent view within rabbinic Judaism was that Gentiles were bound to observe the seven Noachide commandments, but not the entire Torah, and they could be counted as righteous and enter the World to Come simply by keeping those seven commands. But Davies' perspective may be that, for Paul, the Gentiles had transgressed these laws that they were under, and thus they needed a savior.

On page 196, Davies states that Paul believed that all people, Jews and Gentiles, have "an innate knowledge of God's laws". Davies elaborates on what exactly "God's laws" mean:

"This does not mean that every person possesses the itemized knowledge prescribed by the Jewish Law, but rather what might be called the sum total of the Law, which can be summarized in the so-called Noachian commandments. As a created being by nature, every person possesses certain universally valid norms which, in Paul's view, are part of God's revelation in creation."

Does this imply that, whenever Paul uses the phrase "under the law", he means that all people are under the Noachide commandments----that "law" means "Noachide commandments"? I think that there is some merit to this view, for Paul in Romans 2 does appear to argue that Gentiles obey the law whenever they walk according to the dictates of their consciences. But where the view falls short, in my opinion, is that Paul in Romans and Galatians strongly identifies the law with the revelation at Sinai (Romans 5; Galatians 3-4), which occurred after creation and the time of Noah.


  1. I would like to be able to run with the ideas: Gentiles weren't under any propositional law, Torah or Noachite, but were nevertheless sinners because they weren't living rightly. Torah was a special demand on Jews, and even though it can certainly be seen to be not arbitrary and a good way to live for anybody (in it's moral aspects), it is not thereby an underlying universal law for everybody. Jesus saved everybody from their sins, Jews sinning because of transgressing Torah and simultaneously sinning because they have done the things they shouldn't even if Torah hadn't been there.

    There are complications, but not now ...!

  2. Yeah, I've encountered a similar sort of view in my reading----similar, but not exactly alike. I've written many of these posts days in advance, so there will be new ones coming up the next few weeks. One of them concerns Romans 5. Paul says that sin is not imputed where there is no law, and yet, there was death between Adam and Moses. So were pre-Sinai people punished for sin? If so, what's that do to Paul's statement that sin is not imputed without a law? I think your comment here pertains to that issue.

  3. I would want to take no imputation of sin without law as: where a law doesn't exist then there is no sinning against that law - obviously! But it doesn't mean there is no sin committed by doing something that would anyway be wrong even if not identified by a law. As for Torah, only those under it can sin against it.

    But, then there is the interesting case of Noahide laws. (Where did they come from to get in the Old Testament, anyway! Did Abraham know of them, who generally kept them, who passed them on, till Torah?) Surely, only those in contact with Jews would know of them, so, only those could possibly be under them, if they acknowledged the 'Jewish God' to that extent, otherwise not. But, then, why would Jews allow that Gentiles acknowledging their God might only need to keep Noahide laws and not Torah, since it doesn't look a big imposition to become a full Jew -- or what!?

  4. That's a good question. In terms of where rabbinic Judaism sees the Noachide laws in the Bible, it believes that most of them were given to Adam, and the one about not eating blood was then given in Genesis 9. But how were Gentiles to know about them? Perhaps through Israel. There were a lot of God-fearers in Antiquity, and Gentile exposure to the Jews. On why couldn't the Gentiles go all the way and simply observe the Torah, the reason may have been that circumcision and other Jewish rituals were criticized in Gentile culture, and so Jews said Gentiles could be righteous without those things. At least that's what some scholars have said about why Paul preached a circumcision-less Gospel.

    What's interesting is that many Reform Jews believe that people of other religions can qualify as righteous Gentiles if they simply do good. To me, that doesn't square with the Noachide commandment against idolatry. But I wonder how the rabbis addressed that issue.


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